Friday, January 15, 2010

Alok Bal- Story of a Painter and Footballer

In a canvas chair placed randomly under a tree standing almost at the edge of the dining area of Shaam-e-Sarhad, a village resort in Kutch, sits Alok Bal. A green woolen skull cap covers his otherwise bald head. Though not apparently strong enough to ward off the chilly winds of the morning, Alok looks comfortable in his blue wind cheater. Inside it, there is a thin half sweater and around his neck there is an olive green scarf. He wears a pair of jogging shoes. Even in these layered clothes he does not look bulky. There is some steeliness about his physical frame.

Alok Bal, forty one years old by now is an artist from Orissa. He is a good conversationalist. The proof could be seen whenever he is amongst a group of friends. He has so many stories to tell. He speaks mostly in Hindi as there are not many Orissans around him. When there is someone who is not so fluent in Hindi in the crowd, he switches over to English. He seems to have so many stories to tell in an interesting fashion. Friends call him ‘Baba’.

‘Baba’ in Hindi means, a seeker- a spiritually inclined person. Alok is not the one of those spiritual stereotypes abundant in the streets of India. Nor does he look like one of those Hippies who has strayed into a wrong time. But someone tells that Alok has got so many stories to tell about his encounters with the so called ‘spiritual’ leaders.
Alok can keep people awake in a night journey with his stories, one of his young friends corroborates.

The more he is a man of friends, the more he is a loner. In an art camp site, I notice him sitting alone quite often. He can severely isolate himself from the crowd, it seems. He can go into a deep silence, when he feels it to be so. When he is alone and silent, his friends respect his aloofness, till he comes back to their midst.

Before knowing him closely, I had heard about Alok’s passion for football. He is an artist and a footballer. In Indian contemporary art scene there are some artists who claim to have maddening passion for football. There are a few who employ images from the game of football, its history, its politics and the implied violence. One of the artists invites the whole Indian National Football Team to his exhibition openings.

Someone had once stated that had he not become an artist, he would have definitely become a footballer. But I have never seen him playing football.

Here is Alok Bal, who owns a football club, ‘XYZ Club’ in Baroda. When I say he ‘owns’ a football club, it does not mean that he is an entrepreneur in the field of professional club making. He organized a football club for himself because he wanted to play football.

Sounds too selfish? It shouldn’t. Alok is not selfish when it comes to football. As human beings, social psychologists and economists say, that we are all selfish people. Any human action is motivated by incentives. What could be Alok’s perceived incentive in establishing a football club?

Look at the name of his club; XYZ Football Club. ‘XYZ’ is an expression that we commonly use for expressing a generality, especially when we do not want to acknowledge or elaborate on the subjects or personalities that are in our discussion. It deflects the focus a bit from the subjects from getting too much of attention.

But there is a positive way of looking at such nomenclature. It underlines the humility and social positioning of the subjects who are referred under the ‘XYZ’. They are not just the condemnable ‘Dicks and Harries’. Nor are they the ‘Johnnies’. They are ‘some people’ but do not want to be highlighted for the reason they are there for. That is a sort of self-shadowing.

This humble but energetic and bubbling group of youths under the leadership of Alok Bal (him included in the group) are the XYZs. Together they become the football club. During the day, they either study or work in different firms. And during mornings and evenings they play football. They may miss an evening party but they don’t miss the ground.

Dribbling, tackling, passing and shooting at the goal posts give them the pleasure. Alok Bal go with them to the slums around the city of Baroda, recruit potential players from the slums. Once the boys and their parents are convinced of the game and also of the intention of these self-styled mentors, they become the members of the XYZ Football Club.

XYZ Football Club was established by Alok Bal in 2007, after playing several years for the MS University and the other local club. Now some of his findings from the slums play for the Gujarat State Team.

Alok Bal does not play for the Gujarat State Team. But he is a part of the state football administration.

He paints, travels, attends camps, participates in exhibitions and remains to be an incognito. He prefers it to be like that. Interestingly, he has not met any of today’s national football team members, who are aware of contemporary art because they feature in the works of one of the contemporary artists.

Does Alok want to remain as an underdog forever? Perhaps, not. Shifting himself away from the arc lamps is a conscious act. A philosophical positioning gained through several practical experiences in and off the field.

Alok recounts the story of the ‘Providence Football Club’ in Baroda. Now defunct, ‘Providence’ was started by a football enthusiast named Sadanand from Kerala. According to Alok Bal, Sadanand had tremendous football and organizing skills. He had a practical philosophy. Primarily he wanted to play the game for himself as he enjoyed it more than anything else. Also he wanted to charm the youngsters into this fascinating game, which unfortunately was losing out to cricket and the glamour surrounding it.

Sadanand formed ‘Providence Club’. He imported a few local club players from his home state Kerala to Baroda. To complete the team he recruited local boys. Having a club in hand was not enough. To run a club one needed funding. Sadanand found a way out. He asked the players to sell vegetables in the neighborhood and eke out a living for themselves. This worked for a while. Meanwhile Sadanand was looking out for other avenues to make some money to support his club.

More than complex ideas, simple and commonsensical thinking yield the best results. Sadanand thought of making detergent powder, which demanded less technical and scientific skills. He started making detergent powder from his shack and sent his boys for door to door campaigning. Having found an unexpected number of customers for his detergent powder, Sadanand launched his brand of utensils cleaner; the providence brand detergent powder.

Like any other success stories, Providence Brand grew fast and wider. Sadanand established a superstore chain, obviously titled ‘Providence Super Market’. Money was coming in.

But something else was taking place at the same time. The football players, who went door to door selling vegetables and crude detergent powder became well paid executives in the super market chain. They lost interest in playing football. Sadanand too became more addicted to the lure of money that the new business showered on him than the founding philosophy of such an enterprise.

The story of Sadanand ends here sadly as the company ran into a financial scam, resulting into the dissipation of the company, closure of super market chain and of course, the erasure of Providence Football Club.

Alok is an artist and a footballer. In the art scene he is not an underdog. Through focused works and less fussy nature, he has earned his fame, money and a good life. Single still, he uses his time and energy the way he wants it to be used. Even if he can afford a car, he enjoys riding an Enfield Bullet motorbike. An equivalent to the American Harley Davison, Enfield Bullet is a dream bike of any Indian youngster who enjoys two wheeler rides. This instills machismo to the personality of the rider and also gives a sense of authority. Alok’s silver color Bullet carries his sporty personality well.

But in the field of football, he seems to keep his underdog position though he wants his team mates to scale heights professionalism. When he sees the boys being selected to cash rich clubs and significant teams he feels happy. At his age, Alok knows for sure that he will not make it to any ‘professional team’.

However, couldn’t he do something towards raising funds for his club? He has designed a logo for it and also designed jerseys. But what the team needs is a bit more money. When he looks out for a paltry sum of twenty thousand rupees in the form of sponsorship, he finds it hard to gather. So he digs into his pocket without complaints.

An artist with lot of well wishers and friends, why doesn’t he attempt to organize a charity show and raise funds for his team? Sounds easy, but Alok is doubtful about the outcome of such a move. Having Sadanand and the Providence Club fiasco lingering still in his mind, he is afraid of straying into a field, which would not care so much for his philosophy.

Okay, if I organize a charity show and raise funds, there would be another unperceived eventuality, ruminates Alok. “Once the show is successful, the galleries and collectors would see me as a potential fund raiser and they would request my curatorial and organizational skills for their own ends. In the worst case scenario, I can become an art organizer for the gallerists, which I would never like to become.”

Alok’s passion for the game of his liking is infectious. At the same time, he infuses aesthetic sobriety into the minds of his fellow playmates. Looking at it from this angle, Alok is successful in attracting footballers to exhibition openings and art events rather than getting artists to the football ground. Whenever there is an opening Alok randomly picks up his fellow players and takes them to the event. By now, this practice has become quite regular and usual that the players have developed some sort of interest in art.

“They ask questions,” Alok says, “about art and why one paints or sculpts like this or that. It is interesting to answer them. I tell them that the way you dribble your ball in the field, the painters dribble with colors and ideas. They have a strategy the way the players have a strategy.”

Then the difference is that when the players in a field follow a unified strategy, the artists follow a strategy that is quite unique to them. But a deeper analysis reveals that the maneuverings of the art market set up an invisible strategy for the artists. This indirectly lays out a game strategy for them to do their works. If that is not the case, they at least know how to understand the game of art making and pushing it into the market. You may call it ‘for a wider audience’. Economics is an outcome of aesthetics and vice versa.

Alok knows it well. Hence, he has his own strategies both in the studio and in the football ground. When he gets random visits or phone calls from aspiring gallerists who do not care about what a sensitive artist thinks about his/her works, he responds to such calls with dignity, equanimity and with desirable cynicism.

Brooding strokes, dripping paints, predominant grays and reds, uncouth objects, claustrophobic spaces and super technique of finish and finesse define Alok’s work. To an untrained eye and an unfamiliar mind to Alok’s personal history, it is easy to interpret them as the works of a gloomy mind. They might even look like the doomsday paintings. In the extreme cases, someone can take Alok for a psychic artist who dwells deep into the dark innards of his mind to dig out the fossils of condensed pain and angst.

So how do these uninitiated people approach Alok’s works? “They come to my studio. Look around and tell me very innocently that they need some ‘happy’ paintings. Oh yes, happy paintings. That is what they want. I have not understood the real meaning of ‘happy paintings’. But I know what they mean by that. They want soothing colors, soft images and all the more the complete absence of the artist from the works. They want a style which is widely palatable and un-disturbing. So I politely tell that they are in the wrong place to shop,” Alok chuckles.

Some art people are very naïve and some are very innocent. When innocence is expressed when intelligence is expected, it looks stupidity. But then Alok finds it amusing. He receives the tall claims of such fresh galleries. They say that they are going to put him directly into Venice Biennale. Finally they end up in asking for a couple of works for sale pepped up with a flowery offer for a grand solo show complete with a catalogue.

Alok does not fall for it. If at all has strategies to deal with the galleries, it is all about having ‘no-strategy’. He selects group shows carefully and sends out work for them. Once the work is out of his studio, he is no longer the master of it. ‘It is the duty and responsibility of the exhibition organizers to take care of the works. If there is curator and an exhibition designer involved, they should be knowing it well where and how the works to be placed. So I am not so fussy about my works,’ Alok says.

Is he careless in the attitude? It cannot be because Alok is an artist who inculcates the same philosophy in the football field. He tells the ‘boys’ in his team to understand the strategies of the game and forget all the strategies.

‘It is not about following a rule. But it is all about improvising rules,’ opines Alok. “When a player strictly follows a strategy, he becomes a machine. He passes the ball to his mate and waits for his turn to go forward with the ball. But when one improvises the strategy vis-à-vis the other players’ improvisation, it becomes a purely spiritual act. They respond to their instincts and the existing strategy becomes just a trial board. You can change so many things there. A lot of positive energy between players is developed and they become unified in their moves as each improvisation triggers a series of improvisations amongst the other players.’

A different sort of bonding is developed between the players in the field. Alok calls it ‘brotherhood’. Each player becomes a brother to the other player. A lot of differences between them are evened out in the playground. Once it is experimented and practiced within the field it becomes a habit, a nature and they continue to carry on with this attitude off the field too.

In a country, where religion, culture and economy divide people rather than unite, Alok’s experiments in the field prove useful. ‘Players come from different economic grounds. Most of them are underprivileged. But surprisingly, the game levels them out. They become brothers in the act. They become less of competitors but more of compatriots,’ observes Alok.

During the days of World Cup Football, Alok’s apartment in Baroda becomes a pub, a practice ground, a players’ room and many things rolled into one. They all sit glued to the television, watching, discussing and analyzing the game. Each player has his favorite team or player. But those preferences do not become a reason for collapsing the fortresses of their brotherhood.

When did all these start? Alok remembers his school days. He was fascinated by the way young players in his village dribbled a ball, tackled a player, shot a goal. He started playing with the senior boys and soon it became a passion. In the local clubs he worked as a ball boy. Sitting in the waiting room with players who awaited the call of the referee, he learned how the players behaved and how sport united them as brothers.

Before joining the art college in Baroda, Alok had finished his graduation in Commerce. During those days, he became a prominent player in the university football team. He found a place in the Orissa State Football team soon and played for the state for a couple of years. He self-aborted his career as a professional footballer only to pursue his academic studies in fine arts, which took him to the MS University in Baroda.

In 1994, Alok arrived in Baroda. He did not have any intention to hang his boots. Once a footballer always a footballer. Within a few days he found himself practicing in the University stadium, making friends with other footballers and finding a position in the university team. Against all odds, he continued his studies and game. Later he played for several local clubs. He even played for the Providence Club!

Completely a team man, Alok does not show off his presence in any crowd. Perhaps, his story telling abilities always gives him a central position in the crowds. Friends cherish his presence and as mentioned elsewhere, let him be on his own when he wants to be alone and brooding.

Uninhibited nature and team spirit gained from the football fields have given Alok some amount of ‘coolness’. He is unshaken most often and does not care much about his ‘seniority’ in a crowd of young artists comprising of both the harder and fairer sexes. Having Alok in art camps is a pleasure as he works fast and makes fewer demands.

There is a small incident, which might not have registered in too many minds, would tell us how much Alok is a team man and how his prolonged stay for twenty five years in the football grounds imparted him with a special nature to be selfless in certain situations. In the FALCAT Camp Series 2 that I did in Kutch in 2010 January, Alok was a participating artist.

I and Somu Desai had reached a day before in Bhuj to receive the camp participants. On the day of their arrival, we waited at the Bhuj Railway station. A team of twenty artists alighted from the train with their heavy luggage packed for a week.

An old coolie appeared with his trolley and offered us his services. Around twenty five bags and suitcases were heaped on the trolley and the old man started hauling it. From the platform the trolley had to be pushed along a ramp to the parking lot.

The old man was struggling with the trolley. Suddenly I found Alok coming around and supporting the heavy trolley with his back and controlling its downward movement along the ramp. Perhaps, that was the first thing I noticed about Alok Bal on his arrival in Bhuj. I watched him in action. He was not looking for approval or back patting from his friends. He did the job as if it was supposed to be done in the given situation.

I saw a complete sportsman in Alok then and there. Football had made him a different man than art had.

As I said before, friends call him Baba. I realize that they are not too much away from reality once they address him so.

By the time we finish our conversation, Alok tells me about some dying arts and sports forms in Orissa, which he believes, would have similarities with many other arts and sports forms once prevalent but now dying elsewhere in India.

‘Brother, why don’t we do something to find those lost cultures?’ Alok asks me.

‘Yes, we will do it for sure,’ I tell him.

What else could have I said when Alok had already made me a player in his field of brotherhood.


somudesai said...

nicely portrait Alok Bal, Johny

manoj vyloor blog said...

Ever since I read N.S.Madhavan's 'Higuita' during my College days I dreamt of meeting people who brought ends- sport and art- to meet and curve the ball 'like a rainbow' into the opponent's net. Madhavan's story made many a malayali to imagine players as artists. When I talk to students about art and artists I often find it most communicable to use this metaphor of 'Art as Sport' and 'Artist as Player', mostly drawing examples of some of the best instance of sports performances. I am delighted to read this,but a little too lengthy, post and to understand that sport and art meets among artists of my generation, much contrary to the gimmicky strategies(ists) of attention seekers, who sometimes dip like a ball into net laid by even bigger strategists. The whole post could become a theme for a good novel or a movie. Thanks.

prasad raghavan said...

when i met him in Daman camp i felt that aloofness which you are mentioning in this essay. but now i see a different alok bal! very nice!

vidya said...

Nice to 'discover" an artist through personal interactions than to read about him through magazines and news paper clippings. You 'found' Bal! Pleased to know other sides of Alok Bal!

Priyasri said...

ALok your stillness is in fact constantly throbbing with creation and have shown us a glimse of your pottential...there is much to tap and much to come...
Priyasri Patodia